FORT COLLINS, COLO. — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) awarded $1.7 million to Chris Thornton, director of Colorado State University’s (CSU) Engineering Research Center, to design and build a wave overtopping simulator at the university’s Foothills Campus in Fort Collins, Colo. The CSU team will initially be responsible for generating guidelines and methodologies for determining the forces exerted on levees during extreme storm conditions for levee systems.

The project will consist of a specially designed tower and control mechanism, about 28 feet tall by 7 feet wide, operated by a computer system that will simulate waves larger than the roughly 6-foot waves that hit New Orleans. Water will be channeled into the 40-foot-long, 6-foot-wide “trays” which will be used to simulate levees made of soils specific to any region.

Researchers at the Corps Coastal Engineering Laboratory at the Engineering Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Miss., are building, populating, and maintaining a set of trays simulating conditions consistent with those of the Gulf region. Once established, the initial sets of trays will be shipped to Fort Collins and tested during the spring and summer of 2010.

Levees and their supporting infrastructure are susceptible to erosion and, as a result, to potential catastrophic breach in the event of intense hurricanes and the associated storm surges. Scientists and engineers generally agree that there is a real need for more information about how levees can be designed to resist wave overtopping and erosion. According to Thornton, the testing is not as “simple as testing one levee in New Orleans,” given that the solution has to be a “one-size-fits-all fix.” Thornton further adds that “while testing can be specific to a field location and account for unique soil and vegetation combinations, we need to develop design methodologies that allow us to use all the tools in our toolbox. A tremendous amount of work has been done across the academic, engineering, and manufacturing communities to develop engineered systems that resist the force of flowing water. Our job will be to crack the nut of physics and develop a method permitting the effects from forces generated on levees during wave overtopping to be incorporated into current design methodologies.”

As director of the Engineering Research Center hydraulics laboratory, Thornton manages roughly $1 million annually in applied research, solving site-specific problems for projects located around the world. The lab works with such clients as the Colorado Department of Transportation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Highway Administration, local and national consultants, and organizations throughout the country on performance testing, hydraulic structure modeling, and sediment and river modeling. The unique capabilities of the facility and staff have permitted the laboratory to be an international leader in conducting model studies and training future engineers in the fields of hydraulics and river mechanics for the past 60 years.

Thornton indicated that the Corps chose CSU for the project because of the facility’s unique capabilities and the project team’s experience in performing hydraulic studies such as dam overtopping analysis, spillway studies, dam foundation erosion research, and erosion control performance testing. Additionally, the inclusion of national and international experts on the project team was seen as key to the success of the program. Jentsje Van der Meer and Steven Hughes, from the Netherlands and the Corps ERDC, respectively, are key players in the development, design, and operation of the test facility.

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